IT’S EASY TO FORGET that the unassuming, bucolic landscapes of our northern neighbors are as internationally recognizable as the famous city anchoring the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Sure, the food and wine dependent on said landscapes are on the international culinary radar and the luxurious spas nearby seem to cure whatever ails, but why? The answer might surprise you. The true reason for the productivity of these rolling hills and valley goes deep, as in down into the soil deep. And it took a few visionaries to imagine the possibilities this soil could bring — among them Charles Krug, Sam Brannan and Yountville namesake George Yount, all equally determined to unlock the land’s potential.
Much of the soil’s richness can be traced to a cataclysmic event that happened millions of years ago when Mount Saint Helena, part of the now-extinct Sonoma Volcanics chain, erupted in a lateral blast similar to that of Mount St. Helens in the 1980s. This eruption resulted in a massive explosion of nutrient-rich ash and sediment that then covered the valley. The wine country here shares the same type of superior soil that graces other famous winegrowing regions, including Willamette Valley in Oregon and Italy’s Naples, Santorini and Mendoza regions, to name a few. All are examples of soils composed of volcanic ash, rich in minerals like calcium, sodium, and iron that are broken down over millions of years. The Napa Valley Vintners website puts it a bit more poetically: “Violent geologic forces and the steady march of time have created an agricultural Eden that produces some of the world’s most sought-after wine.”
California wine country may be small, but it packs a punch. The Napa Valley Vintners website says “50 percent of the world’s soil orders are found within the borders of the Napa Valley Appellation.” Soil orders are defined as a “single dominant characteristic affecting the soil,” terminology that did not exist when Charles Krug and Hamilton Crabb, two of the first successful Northern California winegrowers, first cultivated this mineral-rich soil to plant vineyards, along with a band of hardworking farmers. Though soil is a critical component of terroir (a French-derived term to describe all environmental factors that affect a grape’s growth), climate and terrain are also key ingredients. In this region, volcanic soil blended with cool foggy mornings and sizzling-hot days is the perfect recipe for a dynamite glass of wine.
Christopher Carpenter, a winemaker at Lokoya Estate, explains how the soil’s tough character can improve a wine’s taste: “When I’m on Diamond Mountain the volcanic history of Napa Valley is one of the first things that comes to mind. Hillside volcanic soils are austere, do not hold nutrients well, and are well-draining. This forces the vines to struggle, which yields rich and concentrated flavors in the wines.”
David Howell, a geologist at the United States Geological Survey, agrees. “Soil can’t directly impart flavor, of course. But the extreme faulting, uplifting, and mixing of the Coast Ranges has created an ideal viticultural laboratory, offering a wide range of conditions within a limited area,” he says. “There’s a huge variation in topography and soil nooks and crannies that impart character to the wine.”
Volcanoes aren’t just good for growing healthy grapes. When it comes to tapping into human wellness, they also have something to offer. And few understood that better than Sam Brannan. Brannan, heralded as one of California’s earliest settlers, was a Forty-Niner, merchant and millionaire magnate who traveled to the upper Napa Valley region (Calistoga) in 1852 upon hearing news of the “healing waters” from the geothermal hot springs there. Soaking in these hot waters and using the mud for bodily cleansing was popular with the indigenous Wappo tribe way before Brannan arrived.
Brannan, seeing the untapped potential in these therapeutic waters — created when the eruption of Mount Konocti left a fissure in the earth exposing groundwater to hot magma — decided to build a luxury spa retreat for the rich and famous, one that still exists today. What he assumed but could not possibly have known to be scientific fact was proven 160 years later when studies in balneotherapy (treatment of disease with immersion in mineral water) suggested that a good soak could reduce stress and inflammation and positively affect sleep and digestion. “Some of our guests have been coming here for the past 40 years to experience the detoxifying and restorative effects of our mud baths,” says Yalda Teranchi, spa director at Indian Springs Resort, built by Brannan in 1861. “The baths are great for pulling out many impurities [from] beestings, eczema and psoriasis as well as restoring tired joints and muscles.”
For anyone needing further convincing a volcano was responsible for California wine Country, hiding in plain sight are three noteworthy attractions that showcase the evidence of cataclysmic eruption.
Calistoga’s Old Faithful geyser may not be as well-known as its Yellowstone sibling, but it is actually one of only three “faithful” geysers in the world. Spouting hot mineral water at regular intervals, the geyser is said to predict California earthquakes when its eruption patterns grow more erratic days before a quake. The recently renovated grounds include a picnic area, outdoor kitchen space and bocce ball courts.
Another volcanically derived natural wonder is the eerie Petrified Forest. Now a privately owned park, it features old redwoods that were leveled in the explosion, buried under 200 feet of sediment and turned to stone. It’s been called one of the finest examples in the world of an ancient forest and confirms that redwood trees once grew in more inland spots than today. Roam the trail on your own or take a guided tour that reveals more details about these massive trees.
To view the California Palisades, or as San Francisco Chronicle outdoors writer Tom Stienstra calls them, “Calistoga’s stairway to heaven,” one simply need gaze up at Mount Saint Helena from the town of Calistoga. The volcanic cliffs created from extensive lava protrusions are dramatic even from a distance. For a closer look at the cliffs and sweeping panoramic views of the valley, you can hike the 10-mile trail up the mountain, starting at the trailhead in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.
To Your Health
FAIRMONT SONOMA MISSION INN AND SPA
For an elegant thermal springs experience, it’s hard to beat the baths at the Fairmont’s Willow Stream Spa. Fueled by the ancient waters of Boyes Hot Springs, which lie 1,100 feet below the hotel, this 40,000-square-foot spa is as chic as it is historical. The “Bathing Ritual” begins in the spa’s bathhouse and includes an exfoliating shower, dips in mineral soaking baths and a Watsu pool. For a splurge, try the signature Willow Stream Elements treatment with a moor-mud wrap, therapeutic bath and warm massage.
$29 guests; $89 day pass (bathhouse experience); $269 for 90 minutes (Elements treatment); 100 Boyes Blvd (Sonoma), fairmont.com/Sonoma
INDIAN SPRINGS CALISTOGA
Built on Sam Brannan’s original spa property, this is the perfect place to soak up history. The grounds include a geothermal swimming pool, volcanic ash mud baths and four geysers. Try the “Classic Mud Bath” made of 100 percent pure volcanic ash found on the property and geyser water, for an experience first discovered by the indigenous Wappo tribe many centuries ago.
$95 for 50 minutes, 1712 Lincoln Ave (Calistoga), indianspringscalistoga.com
“Cleanse, nurture and restore” is the mantra for Solage’s “signature mudslide.” A three-part detoxifying treatment focuses on “the mud,” “the waters” and “the rest.” This twist on the traditional Calistoga mud bath adds pure essential oils to the mineral-rich mud and finishes with guests sinking into a sound-therapy chair.
$110 for 60 minutes, 755 Silverado Trail (Calistoga), solagecalistoga.com